Dialogue Attributions by James Scott Bell

This is one of my favorite posts on dialogue attributions, originally posted on The Kill Zone. It’s so effective because it’s written as a story, one you’ll always remember. Because I wanted to share this with you I wrote to James Scott Bell and asked if I could republish. And he said yes!

For those of you unfamiliar with his work, James Scott Bell is the #1 bestselling author of Plot & Structure, and thrillers like Don’t Leave Me, Blind JusticeDeceived, Try Dying, Watch Your Back, and One More Lie.

plot and structure

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A Short Course on Dialogue Attributions

“So what’s the deal on dialogue attributions?” the young writer asked.

“I’ll tell you,” said the wise old writer. “It’s not complicated, but it’s important.”

“I’m ready to listen!” the young writer asseverated.

The wise old writer slapped him. “Don’t ever asseverate anything again. Just listen.”

Make Said Your Default

An attribution is there to let the reader know who is speaking. The simple said does that and then politely leaves. Some writers, under the erroneous impression that saidis not creative enough, will strain to find ways not to use it.

This is almost always a mistake.

Readers don’t really notice said, even as it serves its purpose. Any substitute word causes the readers to do a little more work. (More on that below.)

On the flip side, it’s possible to usesaid in an abusive fashion. This is done sometimes in hard-boiled fiction, like this:

“Open the door,” Jake said.

“It’s open,” Sam said.

“You don’t lock your door?” Jake said.

“Not on Tuesdays,” Sam said.

“That’s weird,” Jake said.

“Weird is in this year,” Sam said.

In this case, said is forced on the readers for no reason. It feels like you’re getting tapped on the head with a rubber hammer with every line of dialogue. So leave out the attribution altogether when it’s obvious who is speaking.

“Open the door,” Jake said.

“It’s open,” Sam said.

“You don’t lock your door?”

“Not on Tuesdays.”

“That’s weird.”

“Weird is in this year.”

Should You Use Asked? He Asked

There are some teachers who say you should never use asked after a question mark. It’s redundant, they say.

I find that a bit too picky. I use saidafter a question mark, but alsoasked sometimes, for variety. I have no rule about it. I use what sounds right at the time.

No one has complained yet.

Use Alternatives Only If Absolutely Necessary

On occasion, you may need to find a substitute word. Whispered, for example.

What about growled? Barked? Spat? Expostulated?

Be careful. Almost always, the tone of the scene and the words of the character should tell the reader how the words are being spoken. Instead of using a thesaurus, work harder at making the words and the action more vivid. Let’s not see this:

“Put that down!” Charles shouted with emphasis.

“But it belongs to me!” Sylvia declared.

“Put that down,” Charles repeated, a bit more sedately but still with insistence.

“You are such an insistent type,” said Sylvia bitterly.

Ouch. And sedately? Bitterly? That brings us to:

Kill Most Adverbs, But Have Mercy On Some

I’m not the Terminator on this one. I don’t go out on a mission to kill all adverbs and never stop until every one is dead. I do think it’s best to let the dialogue itself, and surrounding action, make clear how something is said.

But on occasion, if it’s the most economical way to indicate something, I may use an adverb. Even though writing sticklers may feel their knickers getting in a twist over adverbs, I write for readers. Most readers don’t care about the occasional adverb. Nor do they wear knickers.

Occasionally Put Said in the Middle 

Every now and then, just to mix things up, put said in the middle of the dialogue. Put it in the first natural spot.

“I think I’d better leave,” Millicent said, “before I lose my temper.” 

If one character uses the name of the other character, for emphasis, you can break up the dialogue this way:

“Rocky,” Mickey said, “this is the biggest fight of your life, especially considering you’re now seventy years old.”

Use Action Beats For Variety, But Not Exclusively

Because dialogue is a form of action, we can utilize the physical to assist the verbal. This is called the action tag.

The action tag offers a character’s physical movements instead of said, such as in Lisa Samson’s Women’s Intuition:

Marsha shoved her music into a satchel. “She’s on a no-sugar kick now anyway, Father.”

He turned to me with surprise. “You don’t say? How come?”

The action tag can follow the line as well:

“Come along, dear.” Harriet spun toward the door.

Warning: this is not to be done every time in place of said. Some writers have attempted to write entire novels without once giving an attribution. But the problem is this: every time there’s an action, even an innocuous one, the reader forms a picture. Too much of this becomes labor, because the reader’s mind is asking for the significance of the picture. The reading experience begins to feel like a series of speed bumps on a road.

John crossed his legs. “So what are you going to do about it?”

Mary tapped her finger on the table. “I haven’t decided.”

John sighed. “Think about it.”

Mary reached for her drink. “I can’t think.”

John scratched his nose.

“This place is creepy.” Mary looked around the restaurant.

John cleared his throat. “Perhaps we shouldn’t have come here.”

See what I mean? Use an action tag only for variety, never exclusively.

The young writer looked at the wise old writer and said, “Is that it?”

“That’s it. Easy, huh?”

“Easier than I thought,” articulated the young writer, smiling wryly, tapping his finger on the table.

The old writer slapped him again. “Just for that, you pick up the check.”



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James Scott Bell is the author of How To Write Dazzling Dialogue. You can learn more about him and his books at: www.JamesScottBell.com

On Twitter @jamesscottbell

How To Romance Your Readers – And Sell More Stories

With us today is Dr. John Yeoman from Writers’ Village. He has an impressive resume, including being a successful commercial novelist for 42 years!  I’m honored to have him with us today, and to have his personal email in case I ever have a question.  Whoops, did I say that out loud?

Anyway, I’ve mentioned before that his blog is one of my favorites.  If you haven’t checked it out yet go here.  Just recently John created a new form of fiction.  At the end of this post I’ll give you a link that further explains what he did.

Take it away, John!

Thanks, Sue!

Here’s a fabulous tip for making sure our readers love your stories and want to read more. But first, let me ask you a question.

As fiction writers, do we always write about ourselves? Our character may be a mafia don, nun, pearl fisherman or – in a sci-fi novel – a thinking blob of mud but, however we camouflage ourselves, it’s us. Isn’t it?

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Three Tips To Amp Up Your Writing

There are many ways to amp up your writing.  But this first technique will surely do the trick.  Today I will share with you three secrets that you may not know.

The first technique I guarantee you’ve read many times in hugely successful novels, but might not have realized that you’ve seen it.

writing book

A while back I read a post about this on Writers’ Village, one of my favorite blogs, and I’ve been meaning to write a post myself because this technique is such a great way to let your writing stand above the rest.  For those of you going traditional you need every advantage to climb out of that slush pile.  And for those of you going Indie you want your readers to come back again and again.  This technique will help you do that.

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A Special Guest Who Interviewed James Patterson, Author Caleb Pirtle III

I have a special treat for you today. I’ve invited an incredible writer who has authored more than 55 books. Last count I believe the number was closer to 59! Caleb Pirtle III has an amazing career that’s spanned decades. Two years ago, as digital publishing was surging to the forefront, he and his wife, Linda, joined with attorney and author Stephen Woodfin to found and build Venture Galleries, working with authors across the country and helping them publish, promote, market, and sell their books. He even interviewed James Patterson, and today will share what he learned.

Let’s take a breath here a minute and just think about what it means to have authored 59 novels. Can you imagine the creativity and skill that takes? I am so honored to have him visit my little murder blog, and to call him a friend. Caleb is a kind, generous person and a fantastic storyteller. We can all learn from a hybrid author like Caleb. So grab your popcorn, sit back and enjoy the ride.

Take it away Caleb…


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I’ve Converted! Outlining vs. Pantsing in Fiction Writing

As some of you know I’ve been working on a new book. I am very excited about this project because I think it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever written. I’ll give you a little teaser later in the post. For now I’d like to share something else.

I have always considered myself a pantser, as I’ve said many times. I was recently approached by author/writing coach Joel D. Canfield who invented an outlining program for pantsers called Outline Your Story in 12 Sentences. Sounds to good to be true, right? Being the type of person that I am, always eager to help another writer, I allowed him to use me as his guinea pig. writing is hard

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Another Thank You To My Prose & Cons Family

There are times when we all need help. Seeing our own work as others see it is extremely difficult.  We spent countless hours crafting our characters, plot lines and twist, shaping and reshaping our story until we’re happy with it.  We set it aside for weeks, sometimes months, in the hopes of coming back with clear eyes.  And sometimes when we come back we still can’t see our stories like someone would reading it for the first time.

I struggled with this very thing a couple of weeks ago.


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So I have some incredible news. I made it into Nightmare On Query Street. I know, I know, it’s very excited. For a while I was on the edge of my seat. The authors who run this event only chose thirty-six entries out of two-hundred and fifty-nine. Out of those I think only about six adult novels made the cut and from those only two thrillers. Not the best odds, eh? Contests are notoriously YA and MG dominated.

When I visited the blog and saw TIMBER POINT was the first title listed I almost passed out! I felt something like this…

happy dance

Upon hearing the news this was my happy dance. Though he looks so much cuter doing it.

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